A glimpse at the effects that global warming is likely to have on pets
By Katie Marsico
From exposés on drowning polar bears to blockbuster documentaries from former vice presidents, global warming can’t help but find its way into the mainstream media. Often, members of the general public listen, shudder, and ultimately turn off the TV with some vague faith and comfort in the fact that this relevant issue will never affect them personally. Unfortunately, however, global warming does touch us in countless ways, not the least of these being our role as pet parents. How is this atmospheric devastation impacting our cherished companion animals, and what can we expect as the environment continues to change?
Although polar bears are arguably the most recent poster child for the harsh realities of global warming, physicist Noam Mohr emphasizes that the rise in temperatures will inevitably affect a myriad of species. Mohr is affiliated with EarthSave International, a group headquartered in New York City, and strives to help people make healthy, life-sustaining, and environmentally friendly food choices.
“As destructive as global warming will be for humanity,” says Mohr, “its impacts will be all the more devastating for animals, [who] can neither plan for its coming nor mitigate its effects. When cloud forests dry up, deserts expand, coastal areas become flooded, and longtime ecosystems become inhospitable to the species that live there, animals will suffer and die.”
Mohr goes on to list examples that may not receive regular attention from the media but are nonetheless indicative of massive and dangerous environmental changes. “Two-thirds of the 110.
Harlequin frog species of the Costa Rican cloud forests have gone extinct, killed off by a fungus that thrives in warming temperatures,” he says. “Many coral reefs have been reduced to rubble, with fish diversity falling by half in some areas. Arctic sea ice will disappear completely in coming decades, devastating the … walrus populations that depend on it for feeding.” Hearing the extent of the impact of global warming, it seems alarmingly reasonable to suspect that companion animals such as dogs and cats will find themselves facing some environmental woes of their own.
“Domestic animals, meaning pets, livestock, and aquatic species, are all vulnerable to the same damaging products of climate change, including heat, droughts, floods, fires, parasitism, and diseases,” explains Gwen Griffith, DVM. Griffith practices in Nashville, Tennessee, and is the director of the Alliance of Veterinarians for the Environment (AVE). “We are already seeing changes in ranges of vector-borne diseases in domestic animals, such as heartworms in dogs and cats. These diseases and their vectors are spreading farther north and into higher elevations than ever seen before. This is an area of … research that needs much more attention.”
While theories on the actual impact that global warming is likely to have on pets are inconclusive, many experts are willing to venture a guess about what certain long-term effects will be. “Cats like Persians and short-nosed dogs like Bulldogs, Boxers, Pekingese, Pugs, and French Mastiffs have difficulty cooling themselves off in high temperatures, so they will [especially] feel the impact of hotter weather,” notes Cindy Milburn, senior advisor of research and development with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has its main headquarters in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. “In addition, cats with light pigmentation and thin hair are at a greater risk of developing certain types of cancer caused by sunlight. Squamous cell carcinoma is a tumor of the skin that is typically found on the head and neck. If some [geographic] areas experience more cloudless days and more hours of sunlight, there could be increased risk that cats with light pigmentation and thin hair will develop this cancer.”
Griffith agrees that climbing temperatures will be particularly crippling for canines, as has been evidenced during heat waves that have occurred in years past. “The heat waves that cause human deaths worldwide also cause animal deaths. Dogs are vulnerable to extreme heat events due to their inability to cool themselves except by panting. Climate-induced drought also means starvation and death from loss of food … and water supplies.”
In addition, rising temperatures will probably result in certain molds, fungi, and disease-vector insects like mosquitoes and ticks extending their ranges north. This will lead to more animals being susceptible to West Nile virus and Lyme disease. However, not every side effect of climate change will be directly connected to pets’ medical vulnerabilities. “With warmer temperatures, scientists forecast more flooding and stronger hurricanes,” says Mohr. “When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many people and pets alike died, and many more dogs and cats starved [or] drowned when left behind by their rescued guardians.”
Since animals sometimes seem to instinctively sense the onset of such natural disasters, it’s worth considering the possibility that we should look to both wild and domesticated species as an indicator of the environment. “Changes in animal behavior related to climate … reflect species’ adaptations to changes in habitat, food sources, diseases, and other health or reproductive stressors,” emphasizes Griffith. “Shifts in species’ ranges and … seasonal behaviors, such as the onset of nesting, are already being observed worldwide. Changes in disease patterns are also likely and need to be further investigated. The problem is that the climate is changing far faster than species have the ability to adapt. Some species will manage the changes, and some will not. Greater disease [and] mortality … will result if the problem of global warming is not addressed in time.”
Time may not exactly be on our side, but education and a proactive attitude are key to shaping a brighter outlook for pets and everyone else who inhabits the earth. “Though the predictions for ‘business as usual’ are grim,” reports Griffith, “the good news is that we have all the tools we need to correct this problem and create a sustainable-energy society. I would encourage people to demand positive change from their leaders for the sake of [companion] animals, for themselves, and for future generations.”
Mohr concurs and adds that taking personal responsibility for the environment is likewise an important tool when it comes to halting the irreversible effects of global warming. “It’s very hard for people to draw the connection between their driving to work or having meat for dinner and dogs languishing and dying in abandoned homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Anything that shows the suffering inflicted by global warming can serve as a wakeup call because the changes we’ve seen to date are just the beginning. If the plight of animals motivates people to rethink their Hummers and chicken wings, then it will be an important step in the right direction.”
To that end, Mohr advocates that pet guardians and humans in general step up efforts to be friendlier to the environment, including eating less meat, using energy-efficient vehicles and appliances, and switching to alternative energy sources. “We have the ability to change, of course,” reminds Mohr, “if only we have the will to do so.”
Alliance of Veterinarians for the Environment
International Fund for Animal Welfare